Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Dick Tracy vs Cueball (1946)

Dick Tracy vs Cueball was released in 1946. It was the second of the RKO Dick Tracy feature films, following Dick Tracy, Detective. Morgan Conway returned as Dick Tracy. After this film he was replaced by Ralph Byrd who had played the rôle in the four Republic serials.

The formula for these Dick Tracy movies was intriguing - take your standard crime B-movie, add lots of film noir visual style, add a touch of gothic atmosphere, a dash of horror movie imagery and then sprinkle some comic-book weirdness on top. It makes for a delicious concoction.

In this instalment Harry Lake, a vicious thug nicknamed Cueball for his total baldness, has just been released from prison and now he’s involved in a plan to steal a fortune in diamonds. Cueball gets the idea that he’s being double-crossed by his partners, and he’s right. Cueball’s normal response to anyone who gets in his way is to kill them (by strangling them with his hatband!) and he starts to deal with his erstwhile partners in his accustomed manner. The opening dockside sequence is very noir and its result is the first of a series of corpses. This brings ace Homicide cop Dick Tracy into the case.

The trail initially leads Tracy to a low dive known as the Dripping Dagger where he hopes to get some information from Filthy Flora. There’s also a crooked diamond dealer, Percival Priceless, who is almost certainly mixed up in the conspiracy.

We pretty much know everything that’s going on from the start but the fun part is whether Dick Tracy will track down the bad guys before Cueball kills them all. Tracy’s girlfriend Tess Trueheart helps out on this case, going undercover as a rich woman in the market for very expensive diamonds, and of course this means that she’s in imminent danger of getting rubbed out by Cueball.

Morgan Conway looks wrong for Dick Tracy but his performance feels right. Anne Jeffreys plays Tess, as she did in the first film. This film adds a new comic relief character, Vitamin Flintheart (played by Ian Keith channelling his inner John Barrymore). He acts as a kind of unofficial advisor and takes a more direct part in the investigation on occasion. He’s a genuinely amusing character. The standout performance is by Dick Wessel as the truly chilling Cueball, a guy who gets more homicidal the more bewildered he gets, and he gets very bewildered.

This movie’s main problem is that Gordon Douglas’s direction lacks the stylishness and visual inspiration that William A. Berke brought to Dick Tracy, Detective. It’s also (disappointingly) a bit more straightforward in plot terms.

These first two movies do manage to convey at least some of the necessary comic-strip feel, with larger-than-life slightly bizarre villains and some odd and slightly grotesque minor characters. The Dick Tracy films have a unique flavour of their own and it’s a flavour that I find pretty appealing. There really isn’t anything quite like them in the world of 1940s Hollywood B-pictures.

My copy of this movie comes from a Mill Creek public domain DVD set but the image quality is quite good. Sound quality is acceptable although with some occasional very mild crackling.

In 1978 the Medved brothers included this movie in their list of The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. This is patently absurd (as are almost all worst films lists). It’s a competently made very enjoyable B-movie with a touch of appealing oddness. Dick Tracy, Detective, which I reviewed here, is definitely better but Dick Tracy vs Cueball is fun and it’s still highly recommended.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Charlie Chan at the Circus (1936)

Charlie Chan at the Circus came out in 1936 and was the eleventh of the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan movies featuring Warner Oland. The Chan movies were really on a roll at this time.

Charlie decides to take the whole family (including the thirteen children) to the circus. A man named Kinney, part-owner of the circus, asks for Charlie’s help in relation to death threats against him. It seems Kinney was right to be concerned since that very evening he is found dead in the business wagon. Kinney had alienated just about everybody so the number of possible suspects is embarrassingly large.

It’s almost a locked-room murder. Fans of locked-room mysteries will be disappointed that that aspect of the mystery is quickly cleared up. There is however no need for despair - there are still plenty of puzzles that need solving. And it’s still a cool murder method - the murder weapon was the circus’s ape Caesar.

Charlie gets roped into the investigation and he has Number One Son Lee (played by Keye Luke) to help him. While he’s always a step behind his father Lee does enough to suggest that maybe one day he could have the makings of a real detective. Of course he would be able to do more detecting if he weren’t so distracted by the charms of a lady contortionist (who is less than pleased by his attentions).

Charlie knows he’s on to something when an attempt is made on his own life, with a deadly cobra as the instrument of his intended destruction. All the killings and attempted killings make good use of the circus background.

As the investigation proceeds it becomes apparent that most of the potential suspects have unexpected but very convincing motives.

This is a film in which we see more of Chan’s home life than usual since we get to see  all thirteen Chan children as well as Mrs Chan. And while Lee Chan as usual provides comic relief he’s certainly not a bumbling nitwit. He displays some good observational skills and his ideas are sound even if he makes a few basic errors in putting them into practice.

Chan also gets some invaluable assistance from the circus’s two midget dancers, Colonel Tim and Lady Tiny, and what’s pleasing is that their performances are not overdone. In fact all of the supporting players give fairly restrained performances which is just as it should be - there’s more than enough here to keep viewers interested and too much hamminess in the acting would have been an unnecessary distraction.

Warner Oland and Keye Luke are both in fine form.

The circus setting is used to maximum advantage, actually driving the plot rather than just providing a colourful backdrop. Not everybody loves circus movies but I do and circuses and murder always seem to me to a winning combination.

And we get not just lots of circus atmosphere but we also have the added bonus of a guy in a gorilla suit (always a worthwhile asset in any B-movie).

A lot of the outdoor scenes were shot at a real circus and some of the extras are actual circus performers.

Director Harry Lachman went on to direct several of the Sidney Toler Chan movies as well as the very decent 1942 horror flick Dr Renault’s Secret for Fox. He gives this movie plenty of energy. The screenplay by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan provides a solid plot and we get a lot of Chanisms - Charlie’s little homilies which I’m sure he knows are nothing but platitudes but that’s the whole point. Charlie wants the villains to think he’s a harmless windbag.

Not everybody likes the ending to this movie but I think it wraps things up pretty neatly in a very B-movie way.

This movie is included in the Charlie Chan Collection, Volume 2 DVD boxed set. Fox have come up with a pretty good transfer for this movie. They spent a lot of money restoring the Chan movies (and the Mr Moto movies) and it was money very well spent.

There are a few extras including the Charlie Chan at the Movies featurette (which is quite good).

Charlie Chan at the Circus is a very fine entry in 20th Century-Fox’s Charlie Chan cycle. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Jungle Siren (1942)

Jungle Siren is a jungle adventure movie released by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in 1942. Since it’s a PRC release and was made by Sigmund Neufeld Productions you know it’s going to be an ultra-low budget production, probably shot in a few days. But there are ultra-low budget movies that are boring and tedious and there are ultra-low budget movies that are great fun. On the whole Jungle Siren falls into the great fun category.

Jungle Siren stars Buster Crabbe and strip-tease legend Ann Corio and I’ll have more to say about them later.

Two Americans are helping the Free French to build an airfield in Africa. Captain Gary Hart (Buster Crabbe) and Sergeant Mike Jenkins (Paul Bryar) soon discover that there are people who don’t want that airfield built. The chief of one of the local tribes, Chief Selangi, is one of those people but the chief is actually in the pay of sinister Nazi agent George Lukas.

The two Americans do have an ally but she’s quite a handful. She is Kuhlaya (Ann Corio) and she is a wild jungle girl. She is however not quite a female Tarzan. We find out very early on that she can read and write. Her parents were missionaries. They were killed, and she has reason to believe that it was Chief Selangi who killed them. She has been raised partly by the alcoholic Dr Thomas Harrigan and partly by a local tribe.

Kuhlaya is beautiful and she’s basically a nice girl, apart from her habit of killing people she doesn’t approve of. She’s not civilised but not entirely uncivilised. She’s your classic jungle girl, caught between two cultures, but she’s as deadly as she is beautiful.
And she is a bit of an unguided missile. She’s also heavily into the concept of revenge.

She’s not the only beautiful dangerous female the two American boys have to deal with. There’s also Lukas’s wife Anna (Evelyn Wahl). Anna may or may not be a loyal Nazi but she’s definitely man-crazy. She takes one look at Captain Hart and she wants him. She wants him real bad.

Of course you know that there are going to be multiple attempts to kill Captain Hart and Sergeant Jenkins. And of course you know that either Captain Hart will fall for Kuhlaya or she will fall for him. In this case it’s Kuhlaya who falls first. For her it’s lust at first sight (she thinks he’s an absolute hunk) but lust can turn pretty easily into love. And Captain Hart is not exactly immune to her savage charms. She’s like a wild animal but she’s also all woman.

Director Sam Newfield (Sigmund Neufeld’s brother) was a B-movie specialist who could be relied upon to handle zero budgets and absurdly short shooting schedules. Get it right the first time because there ain’t gonna be any retakes. His movies were rarely masterpieces but some were remarkably entertaining. He understood pacing. You can get away with low budgets and laughable production values if you make sure that there’s always something happening.

Buster Crabbe was extremely good at playing likeable heroes and with his background in serials he would have had no problem working on tight schedules. He wasn’t the world’s greatest actor but he had personality and he had charisma. He also had the kind of looks that women went for in a big way. This movie has Ann Corio to provide eye candy for male audience members and Buster Crabbe provides the eye candy for the ladies (who were undoubtedly pleased whenever he took off his shirt).

And then there’s Ann Corio. Miss Corio wasn’t just a stripper, she was one of the most famous strippers of the era, and one of the most luscious. She made a handful of very low-budget movies in the 40s. As an actress she’s actually reasonable competent (more than adequate for a movie such as this) but it isn’t great acting that is required of her here. What she needs is presence (and as a burlesque queen she had that). She needs to be sexy (no problem at all). And she needs to convince us that Kuhlaya is good-hearted but also wild and dangerous and passionate and jealous. She does that pretty well. Overall her performance works just fine.

If you want to see Jungle Siren you only choices are going to be public domain releases. I saw the Sinister Cinema version. Sound quality is dodgy (plenty of hiss) but the dialogue is always early understandable. Image quality is actually very good. On the whole it’s a perfect acceptable release.

Jungle Siren is a typical low-budget jungle adventure but Buster Crabbe and Ann Corio are enough to make it worth seeing. I’m recommending this one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Room 43 (1958)

Room 43 (AKA Passport to Shame) is a nicely sleazy 1958 British crime thriller about white slavery, with Diana Dors starring.

It starts off with a great line of dialogue. Miss Dors steps off the pavement and loses her footing and a passer-by tells her that she almost ended up in the gutter. She gives him this wonderful look, as if she knows all about ending up in the gutter. If you’re going to make a sleazy film you might as well establish the proper mood right at the start.

Nick Biaggi has a number of business interests, none of them honest. He runs a finance company that specialises in offering loans, without any security, to pretty young women. It’s a means of recruiting girls into his real business, white slavery. He recruits a lot of his girls from abroad. To get them passports he has to find husbands for them. Temporary husbands of course.

He has found a suitable husband his latest girl (an innocent French girl named Malou). Johnny McVey is a Canadian cab driver who has just borrowed a lot of money (from Nick’s finance company although Johnny doesn’t know this) to buy a new cab and now the cab has been smashed up (which Nick also arranged). Nick comes to Johnny’s rescue, getting him off the hook for the loan. Nick suggests that Johnny could also make an easy two hundred quid by marrying a pretty French girl who really needs a passport. The marriage can be annulled afterwards. There won’t be any bother and Johnny would really be helping the girl out. Johnny is a nice guy, exactly the kind of guy who would love to do something nice for a pretty girl.

Now Johnny isn’t stupid. He figures out pretty quickly what the racket is. Nick is bringing in prostitutes (or girls destined to be prostitutes) but he needs British passports for them so they can’t be deported once they start working the streets. Johnny thinks he doesn’t care because he thinks he’s cynical and hardboiled. When he meets his bride-to-be he naturally assumes she’s a tart. He’s amused when she tells him she’s a decent respectable girl.

Malou thinks she’s been hired as a companion to a nice English lady. It seems like a great job. She’s been set up in a nice house and she’s been given pretty dresses to wear. And there’s another girl living in the house, Vicki. Malou thinks Vicki is a nice girl and has no idea how Vicki earns the money that pays for the beautiful clothes she wears. Malou is very very innocent and she still has no idea what’s in store for her. She starts to get an inkling when she gets a glimpse inside Room 43, and sees what Vicki wears underneath her lovely dresses. Nice girls don’t wear underwear like that. Only women of a certain type wear such things. Then Nick explains things to Malou.

Johnny has been thinking things through as well. And he doesn’t like the conclusions that he draws. He is after all, technically, married to Malou and he’s not keen on the idea of his sweet little French wife as a streetwalker. But is it too late for Malou, and for Johnny?

This movie boasts an awesome cast. Firstly there’s Diana Dors as Vicki, at the absolute height of her sex goddess phase and looking breathtakingly beautiful. Vicki is a Whore With a Heart of Gold. Well, sort of. She’s cynically realistic but it’s a life that ruined her sister so she’s not exactly happy being a whore. Like Johnny, she’s not as hardboiled as she thinks she is. Odile Versois as Malou is technically the female lead in the picture but Diana Dors was a much bigger name and a much bigger box-office draw, and while Mlle Versois is good it has to be said that Diana Dors effortlessly dominates the movie even in what is technically a supporting rôle (albeit a very meaty and substantial supporting rôle). Dors as always lights up the screen, and in practical terms she is indeed the star.

Then there’s Herbert Lom, deliciously oily as Nick. It’s the sort of rôle he always had fun with and he has even more fun with Nick’s pretensions to being an English gentleman.

And finally there’s Eddie Constantine, best remembered from the wonderful French Lemmy Caution thrillers such as Dames Don’t Care. He’s a perfect slightly reluctant hero, a guy who doesn’t really want to do the right thing or get mixed up in other people’s problems but he just can’t bring himself to behave like a louse. It’s a fine performance with plenty of rough-around-the-edges charm.

Look out for Joan Sims (of Carry On fame) in a small part.

For those who like spotting classic cars in movies Nick drives a very cool Aston Martin DB Mark III (which is incidentally the car James Bond drives in the original 1959 novel version of Goldfinger).

There’s some nice hardboiled dialogue. Vicki tells Malou she’s in the entertainment business. Malou, all excited, asks her what she does. Vicki replies, “Entertain.”

There’s an amusing drug/dream sequence, a fascinating piece of psychedelia before anyone knew what psychedelia was.

This is a hard-to-find movie. The only copy I could get hold of is a slightly dubious grey market version which offers a fairly poor transfer which appears too be pan-and-scan. But it’s a Diana Dors movie so I had to have it. And if you’re a Diana Dors fan you’ll want it as well.

Room 43 is an overheated sex and sin melodrama but it has style, it has fine performances and it works for what it is. It’s sleazy and it’s romantic and it’s thoroughly enjoyable in a slightly disreputable way, and it has an exciting finale as well. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express (1966)

Alain Robbe-Grillet’s second feature film as director, Trans-Europ-Express, was released in 1966 and is an enticing mixture of thriller, fun and artiness (yes such a combination is possible).

Here's the link to my full review.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds is a 1934 aviation mystery thriller from First National Pictures (which was of course by that time a division of Warner Brothers).

Bob ‘Three Star’ Halsey (Lyle Talbot) is the ace pilot at Trans America Air Lines. He’s the source of constant exasperation to the airline boss Lackey. He drinks too much, gambles too much and gets into too many fights but there’s nothing Lackey can do about it - Three Star is just too good a pilot to fire.

Three Star’s girlfriend is Judy (Ann Dvorak), one of the airline’s stewardesses (yes I know we’re supposed to call them flight attendants these days but in 1934 they were stewardesses). Judy would marry Three Star in a minute if she could convince herself he would make a reliable husband but since she can’t convince herself of any such thing she’s waiting for a miracle that will turn him into husband material. One of the other pilots, George Wexley (Gordon Westcott), is kinda sweet on Judy as well.

Now the airline has been given a vital job by the government - to fly a top scientist (who has invented a new military explosive) to an important meeting. They need the very best pilot for this job, and that means Three Star Halsey. But there’s a sinister plot afoot and Three Star isn’t going to make that flight. Wexley will make it instead.

That flight could be a flight to disaster. The scientist is carrying a cylinder of the new explosive and it’s obvious that bad guys, probably in cahoots with foreign spies, will stop at nothing to get it. There’s going to be murder and mayhem and Judy will get caught in the middle. And Three Star will do anything to save his girl.

D. Ross Lederman was a typical journeyman director of B-features, especially westerns. Not a great director but extremely competent when it came to action scenes and a man who understood the importance of pacing. Future studio big shot Dore Schary co-wrote the screenplay.

Lyle Talbot, always a wonderfully entertaining actor, is perfectly cast as the brave but irresponsible Three Star. Talbot has the charisma to pull off a rôle like this without any trouble at all. Ann Dvorak is also very good as the good-natured but slightly cynical Judy. There was always just a slight edge of hysteria to Dvorak’s performances but that’s what made her an interesting actress. You always think she might be about to cry, or scream, or kiss someone, or shoot someone. Judy is more than just the love interest for the hero, as she gets to prove she can be pretty resourceful as well.

There’s lots of great footage of vintage aircraft including Ford Tri-Motors, an eleven-passenger aircraft which was a mainstay of American civil aviation in the late ’20s and the ’30s. There’s some quite exceptional aerial photography. There are even dogfights! Very well staged dogfights. And Ann Dvorak looks pretty fetching in her rather sexy 1934-era stewardess uniform.

OK, the plot is at best workmanlike and there isn’t much of a mystery but the characters are engaging. We want things to work out between Three Star and Judy because they’re likeable and we believe in them. There’s a spy thriller element but the canister of explosive is really just a McGuffin. What matters is that there’s something that the bad guys are prepared to kill for.

There’s action in the skies and on the ground, there’s some suspense and there’s romance. In other words, there’s everything you need to make a thoroughly enjoyable B-picture. The two leads are excellent and the supporting cast is good, especially George Cooper providing some low-key comic relief as the world’s most hopeless pilot.

Alpha Video’s DVD is pretty good. The transfer is very acceptable indeed.

Murder in the Clouds is just plenty of good clean fun. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Conspirator (1949)

Conspirator, released by MGM in 1949, is a British-made combination romance/spy thriller. Teaming one of the major male heart-throbs of the era, Robert Taylor, with the stupendously beautiful 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor must have seemed like a sure-fire recipe for success.

Melinda Grey (Elizabeth Taylor) is a young American girl in London in 1949. She meets a dashing British army officer, Major Michael Curragh, and is swept off her feet. They are soon married. The marriage is a happy one until Melinda discovers Michael’s dark secret. He is a Soviet spy. There are no spoilers involved here. All this information and more is revealed on the poster. The viewer knows the details of Michael’s secret almost from the start. The suspense comes from the fact that we know that sooner or later Melinda will find out, and the consequences are likely to be awkward for all concerned. To say the least.

The question is what are Michael and Melinda going to do about the situation? There aren’t really any good options for either of them. Melinda thinks Michael will abandon his cause for love and Michael thinks Melinda will adopt his cause out of love.

This was about the time that Robert Taylor was just starting to break away from conventional matinee idol rôles and beginning to play more complex and much darker characters (he made the excellent The Bribe in 1949 also). He does reasonably well here. From the start Michael is a bit obsessive, the sort of man who might have a darker side. And he’s just a little secretive about his past, or at least reluctant to disclose details. We do learn that he is Irish, which is about as close as the film comes to giving him a motivation for being a spy.

Elizabeth Taylor was perhaps a couple of years too young for the rôle of Melinda but in some ways that’s an advantage as it makes it more convincing that she should convince herself that she can persuade Michael to give up his beliefs for her.

It may seem a little odd that Robert Taylor, an American, gets cast as a British Army officer while Englishwoman Elizabeth Taylor gets cast as an American. Fortunately neither of them worries too much about accents (the modern obsession with accents was not yet in evidence in 1949). Robert Taylor was more than twice Elizabeth Taylor’s age at the time.  It has to be said that he does more with his rôle than she does with hers.

Wilfrid Hyde-White is delightfully amusing as always in a small part. A very young Honor Blackman plays Melinda’s best friend Joyce, who never quite trusts Michael.

The Soviet spymasters are stereotypical evil communists (in contrast to Michael who is a romantic idealist).

This is an attempt at the kind of espionage suspense thriller laced with dangerous romance (and with just a hint of sadism) that Hitchcock had so much success with in the 40s and 50s.

Unfortunately Victor Saville, who directed Conspirator, is no Hitchcock. All the plot ingredients are there in Sally Benson’s script but the suspense never comes close to Hitchcockian levels, and Conspirator lacks the dazzling set-pieces that enliven even Hitchcock’s lesser films.

Freddie Young, one of the most successful of British cinematographers, ensures that the movie at least looks good (it was set in black-and-white as spy thrillers should be).

There are complicated themes of conflicting loyalties and cross-betrayals that are hinted at but perhaps needed to be developed a bit more.

The Warner Archive release offers a very good transfer without any extras.

So is this movie worth seeing? If you’re fan of Robert Taylor in his dark and brooding mode then the answer is probably yes. And if you’re a fan of Elizabeth Taylor it’s a chance to see her at the height of her youthful beauty in one of the early grown-up rôles. Since I’m a fan of both I enjoyed the film even if it didn’t reach any great heights. So I’ll give it a qualified recommendation.